O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Compartmentalization, although not taught in such precise definition, is the bread and butter of military life. For the most part, we are highly capable of tending to tasks even if things beyond work’s lifelines aren’t exactly running at top speed.
But still, there are moments where we find ourselves behind workstations and are suddenly caught off guard. An unexpected lash of emotion wedges into the narrow halls of our focus, and it takes a moment to collect yourself. It could start with an email that the eyes process —the transit of electronic words goes from lens to retina to brain until they are finally translated as something more than just pixels on a screen. It’s as if a stone was cast into calm waters, the ripples expanding slowly outward until they’ve brushed the farthest reaches of the mind. You don’t expect to be pushed over by such a tiny wake, but then again, every so often, there it is.
One of my first jobs in the Navy included the collateral duty of organizing and conducting burials at sea. I retrieved the ashes of veterans from the Portsmouth Naval Hospital and then brought the urns to my ship where we would get underway and commit their remains to the sea in a solemn ceremony. Chance would have it that the first such ceremony was conducted not far from my home, just off Cape Cod as we commenced an eastward transit to the Baltic Sea.
And as I write this now, I am once again at sea and doing tasks of a very different sort—now some 4,000 miles away from that peninsula on the northeast American coast. Here I wake up each morning and before my job kicks into high gear, I check my civilian email account to see what’s been going on in the outside world. One of the topics has been my planned trip back home once this underway trip is complete. The reason I’m going is to attend a memorial for my aunt. It will be a burial at sea of sorts for a dear loved one.
It’s pretty amazing, this modern-day world where more and more of us find ourselves flung far from the places where we grew up. Part and parcel of this tempo includes the option to place previously uncontrollable life events on hold until a time comes along that is more suitable. You are able to keep cremains on shore until ship or family come ready to support this final mission.
When my aunt died back in the spring, some of us—her kids—were far away and largely out of communication. Military life will do that to you. It demands that you must compartmentalize. And as a result of circumstance, the pause button back home was switched on, and we waited for a suitable calendar date where everyone to convene. Now, many months later, that date was nearly upon us. The only thing that we hadn’t figured out was how exactly we would memorialize her.
“I’m thinking of starting off with a breakfast at Bobby Byrne’s to start the day like we did with Harry when we were little.”
This was the suggestion that popped into my inbox while I sat in my workspace on board the ship. For a second, I just gave it a reflexively quick scan, as if it were nothing more than a heating bill or a link to some Boston sports story. But the pebble was thrown—suddenly I felt more than just the pull of my hair as it always feels when bound up in a tight military-approved hairstyle. I felt tears in my eyes that threatened to conflict with the bored and blanked-out expressions that were worn by the sailors and peers who were sitting me.
A rush of images sprouted from that simple email: me and my siblings sitting at a big wooden table in a dimly-lit pub, sipping on bottomless Shirley Temples and eating potato skins while pushing quarters into the jukebox as my aunt sipped Bloody Marys. I liked crunching on the celery sticks that she let sit in the drink. I liked looking up at the illuminated model of the Budweiser Clydesdales and carriage. All of this might sound like the worst way for kids to spend a Sunday morning, but it’s honestly one of the best memories I have (and for what it’s worth, we usually went to the pub after Mass). Whatever the case, sitting there on the ship, I was surprised to find these images permeate the hardened borders of my military bearing.
It’s funny being an adult. When you’re a kid, you imagine that older people have some sort of superhuman skill that enables them to handle all situations with stoicism. They seem to be better at dealing with things. Thinking back about an old pub in faraway Mashpee would never affect an adult’s composure—at least not during the light of day. But then of course, as we become those older people, we find that it’s not about being stoic—rather, it’s about learning to redirect and delay emotions to moments that are a bit more accommodating. At least most of the time.
And anyway, it’s been a few days since I started to write about this. Life on board, much like life ashore, moves in fits and starts. We spend much of our time getting pulled along by one thing or another. I suppose that’s why moments of deeper reflection sometimes come along and surprise us.
Even though I’ll be home on Cape Cod in just a few days, my family still hasn’t gotten its act together to figure out exactly what kind of a memorial we will have. No doubt it will start at the pub, and then perhaps we’ll bring my aunt’s ashes down to Woods Hole. I don’t know. Life is short. And in this month of October, the days are short too. It’ll be nice to go back home for a few days and shed my military exterior. To be a little kid. And most importantly, to allow a little messiness and emotion to run wild as we celebrate my aunt. I think that’s exactly how she’d want us to do it.